Back in the 1940s an experiment to determine the effect of radiation on fruit flies earned a scientist a Nobel Prize and established the basis for what is now called the “linear no-threshold” hypothesis, or simply LNT.
He observed that at high doses of radiation, the mutagenic effect on the creatures increased in proportion to increases in dosage. He reasoned that the mutagenic effect also would decrease in proportion to decreases in dosage, and concluded that there was no lower limit to harm caused by radiation – just a lower proportionate effect all the way to zero dose.
HE DID NOT report data to support his contention, but recently, a different researcher claims that the Nobel laureate did run experiments at low doses, but since the results did not support his earlier contention relating to proportionate harm, he chose not to reveal the data. As a matter of fact, there are no studies that show harmful health effects attributable to low doses of radiation.
It is very difficult to perform such experiments because of the ubiquitous nature of natural radiation. Every living thing and every thing that ever lived is radioactive, so it is very difficult to find sites for experiments with very low background levels of radiation. One location that is ideally suited to such studies is just outside Carlsbad, N.M., at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
I VISITED WIPP recently and experienced being lowered nearly a half-mile below the desert floor into a 250-million-year-old salt formation. I was there to look at the emplacement of transuranic waste, but during a briefing, one of the WIPP personnel was introduced as being in charge of experimental projects. I asked him about low-level radiation studies conducted at WIPP. He acknowledged the studies, and almost casually remarked that the biological specimens that were deprived of radiation all died while those that received normal levels of radiation thrived.
Just think – if we had these results before we zapped those fruit flies, we would all be concerned about whether or not we were getting our minimum daily requirement of radiation instead of whether our granite countertops and the banana we had for lunch were exposing us to dangerous levels of radioactivity.
A MULTITUDE OF studies have debunked the LNT hypothesis, but it is still used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to predict health consequences because of nuclear reactor accidents, and
the National Academy of Sciences has never backed off from its endorsement of the concept dating back to the 1940s. Health physicists have used the concept to good advantage to minimize radiation exposure to radiation workers, and the Environmental Protection Agency uses the concept to regulate exposure to environmental toxins.
But using this discredited hypothesis to predict health effects has caused enormous societal harm. It has contributed to the very high capital cost of nuclear power plants, thus depriving many of the opportunity to have safe, clean electricity. It has made dealing with nuclear materials and nuclear waste more expensive than real safety concerns would dictate. Whole populations were forced to evacuate areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power stations that had radiation levels lower than background levels in other parts of the world.
MIND YOU, THE nuclear industry still would practice its rigorous radiation control regimen known as “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” even if the LNT hypothesis were discarded. The difference would be that more emphasis would be placed on the word ”reasonably.” Demonstrable health effects would be the basis for tightening regulations instead of the incredibly naïve notion that one beta particle can cause cancer.
The LNT hypothesis also assumes that radiation dose exposure is additive over time and over populations. This is how large numbers of cancer deaths are predicted by alarmists from events such as Fukushima. They argue that the low doses integrated over very large populations and times lead to large numbers of cancer deaths. It is like saying that if an ingestion of 100 aspirin tablets at once is fatal, then one tablet a day for 100 days also would be fatal, or that if 100 people each take one tablet, one of them will die. This, of course, is nonsense.
THERE ARE PLACES on Earth such as Ramsar, Iran, that have background radiation levels much higher than that reported in the evacuation zones at Fukushima with no detectable health effects. If LNT were correct, all the people in Ramsar would be dead by the time they were 20 years of age. Instead, despite poor diets and little medical care, they are known for producing a high percentage of centenarians.
So, have you had your minimum daily requirement of radiation today?
(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.)